Largely undiscovered by British travellers, the area around Debrecen in eastern Hungary is a place of flat landscapes, fine wines and intriguing towns, writes Nick Elvin

A fire engine is spraying water over our aircraft. Fortunately, this isn't the moment to finally put countless pre-flight safety briefings into practice. It is in fact a traditional way of welcoming a special flight into an airport, in this case the inaugural service from Luton to Debrecen.

Up until now, it has seemed like a regular low-cost airline journey to some little-known eastern European destination. Even the man at check-in admitted to me he’d never heard of the city before, let alone could pronounce its name properly. But now a small orchestra is playing on the edge of the Tarmac, television crews record the plane's arrival and hordes of curious locals line the runway at this former military airbase, whose turf-covered hangars are the nearest things to hills in this endless patchwork of flat land.

This is the Puszta, the Great Plain of eastern Hungary, at the centre of which is Debrecen (pronounced Debretzen), the country's second largest city. Home to around 200,000 people, plus a student population of some 60,000, it appears modest, but closer inspection reveals a healthy mix of architectural styles, tree-lined streets, parks, and modern sports centres and university buildings. A “little big city”, as it is often called.

The temperature is 33 Celsius when my tour group and I embark on an afternoon of sightseeing, stopping often to enjoy the cool shade of Debrecen’s finest buildings. In the main thoroughfare, Piac Street, you can see Romantic, Renaissance, Classical, Baroque, Eclectic and Secessionist architectural styles. The city's centrepiece is the Great Reformed Church, dating back two centuries, its 61-metre twin towers dominating the wide open Kossuth Square.

Debrecen was dubbed "the Calvinist Rome" as it was a place where Calvinism became popular during the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s. With the Reformation came a significant growth in the number of schools in the area, and one of the most important manifestations of this is the Reformed College. The buildings of the college we see today date from the start of the 19th Century.

Debrecen was a prosperous place before the tumultuous years of the 20th Century stifled its promise. The city was affected greatly by a Romanian occupation, the Great Depression, two world wars and decades of Soviet control. But now there’s renewed confidence and growth, and much of the Debrecen streetscape has been restored to its former glory.

In the cooler early evening we take a trip out past the lush Great Forest on the edge of Debrecen, to the Zsindelyes distillery at Erpatak, a family-run business that produces the Hungarian brandy palinka. Palinka has been distilled on this site since the early 19th Century, but the drink itself is said to date back at least to the start of the 1300s, when Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary began to treat her health problems with distilled fruit drinks.

The distillery produces many flavours of palinka, and each year four million kilograms of only the finest grade of fruit goes into the stills. Over dinner in the tasting room (some of the dishes use palinka to give them a hearty kick), we taste several varieties of palinka, including plum, strawberry white pear and sour cherry. There’s even apple, cinnamon and honey flavour, which tastes like Christmas. The range is excellent, and palinka judges the length and breadth of Hungary agree. The walls of this, one of the country’s best-selling distilleries, are full of certificates.

There’s another liquid that is very important to Debrecen. It is said that if you stick your finger in the ground in Hungary, geothermal water will come out. There’s a geological fault line running through the region that helps to supply it, so it's not surprising that more than 200 spas exist in this area alone. These days all age groups visit the spas to relax, and of course enjoy the health benefits of the water.

Next morning we make the 30-minute journey to the town of Hajdúszoboszló, home to Europe's largest bathing complex, Hungarospa. There are many pools to choose from, indoors and out, the hotter ones reaching temperatures up to 38 Celsius. Dragonflies hover over the outdoor pools as if they are muddy ponds, which essentially they are. The mineral-rich, brown thermal water contains many properties including hydrogen carbonate, iodine, bromide, calcium and magnesium. Many of the spa-goers have had their visit prescribed by their doctor, and the minerals are said to help with conditions such as osteoporosis, arthritis, rheumatism, eczema and breathing problems, among others.

Even at 8.30am it’s busy, but there's a relaxed atmosphere, not only because the town is about as close as you can get to the Mediterranean in such a landlocked place, but perhaps also due to the security of knowing there are doctors here to treat your every ailment.

Later we head to Hortobágy, the largest and oldest national park in Hungary. Deep in the heart of the plain, it’s a place of mirages, dust devils and old inns. We take a trip on a small narrow gauge train and discover it’s also a world of canals and ponds, reeds and bulrushes, of water buffalo wallowing in lakes, and carp fisheries. It’s like an overgrown version of Holland with hints of East Africa. We climb a lookout and watch groups of large birds cross the sky slowly. The scent of flowers fills air that has so little pollution that the area is known as a stargazer’s paradise. There are about 300 bird species here, including geese, eagles, egrets, falcons, marsh harriers, cranes and shrikes.

We later climb aboard a traditional horse and cart for a bumpy ride that makes me realise just how far suspension technology has come in the last couple of centuries. Movie Westerns always make this sort of thing look easy. The plains have been home to horses, pigs, water buffalo, sheep and cattle for centuries, and we head out into the middle of the fields to meet the men whose job it is to look after them: the gulyás, or herdsmen. Dressed in traditional blue and black attire they welcome us by circling our wagon on horses and cracking their bullwhips. Then one of them rides five horses at once, standing on top of two of them, gradually working up a frightening pace. Aside from giving these displays to visitors the gulyás have a tough job to do, although this is surely made easier by their Hungarian Nonius horses, famed for their strength and endurance. Another thing that has kept these cowboys going for centuries is a stew cooked on long cattle drives that is also known as gulyás, or to give its English spelling, goulash.

We drive a couple of hours north to the Tokaj wine region near the border with Slovakia. Here the south-facing slopes of the Zemplén Mountains, part of the Carpathians, rise up from the plain. Thanks to the eruption of undersea volcanoes about ten million years ago, these mountains contain fertile soil that is ideal for viticulture.

The village of Mád (pronounced, slightly disappointingly, mard) was once an important trading post. One building has an especially poignant story. The Late Baroque synagogue was refurbished a decade ago, having been left a complete ruin for many years. In 1944, about 600 Jews were deported from Mád, and 336 of them died in the Holocaust. Thirty families returned after the war, but today there is not a single Jewish inhabitant here, a statistic we learn from the caretaker of the synagogue, a Catholic.

We take a tour of the sloping vineyards of Mád. The late afternoon sun shines on the green hills of the Zempléns and the Great Plain stretches as far as the eye can see. In the Soviet era, the wine industry in the area was ruined. Now, winemakers are getting back to the traditional ways, while also using some new methods. One of the local wineries, Royal Tokaji, founded in 1990, was the first to gain foreign capital. Some world famous white wines are produced here, including the high quality, sweet Aszú.

Such is the importance of wine in the area that at the Gusteau restaurant in Mád they choose the food to match the wine. The restaurant, which has held the title of best in eastern Hungary, offers dishes that do justice to the wines - kohlrabi cream soup with duck gizzard, fried goat’s leg among the delights here.

More than 300 years ago Tokaj wine received one of its most glittering celebrity endorsements, when Louis XIV of France proclaimed it the “wine of kings and king of wines". And yes, after a few glasses of this stuff you may well feel like you’re king for the day.

Hungarian Tourism:
Debrecen tourist information:

Wizz Air flies from London Luton to Debrecen three times a week:
Flights are from £110 per person return.

Hotel Divinus, Debrecen: Rooms from €132 per double room for two people, including buffet breakfast. Tel: +36 52 510 900 or visit

Nyíregyháza: Attractions around the pretty town of Nyíregyháza include the holiday resort of Sosto, home to Sostozoo, a 35-hectare zoo where you can see white tigers, rhinos, camels, komodo dragons, sharks, giraffes and much more. Every day a baby animal is born here, among the oak trees.

The nearby Aquarius spa, built around the Sosto Lake, is another of the region’s great spa resorts. There are waterslides, thermal pools, and lots of grass on which to spread your towel.

Aquaticum Mediterranean Pleasure Bath: If you’re in Debrecen and don't wish to make the journey out to Hajdúszoboszló, this large spa and swimming pool complex is close to the heart of town. You can cool off or almost boil yourself in the pools, have a go on the waterslides, or take a dip in a Jacuzzi. All day ticket from £13 for adults.

IKON Restaurant, Piac Street, Debrecen: Traditional Hungarian cuisine with a modern twist.